My favorite social gatherings have always been ones where about 8 to 12 people sit down around a table. That way guests who don’t know each other can get to know each other, without the normal cocktail party pressure to flit on to the next clump of people after a few minutes of conversation. (Maybe some people that sort of cocktail party dynamic especially pleasant, but I’ve generally found it socially daunting — and, as my friends will tell you, I’m not generally a shy or unsocial person.) The sit-down events I like best are dinner parties, but those take a lot of effort to prepare; and, unsurprisingly, many would-be hosts are deterred by the difficulty.
But one much-neglected option, I think, is the after-dinner sit-down coffee/tea with dessert. It’s easy to prepare — just make the coffee or tea, buy some wine, and buy some dessert (I tend to get three cakes from my favorite bakery) — but has most of the pleasure of a sit-down dinner. It also doesn’t require a large home; even if you have a small dining room table, you can generally have the dessert around a coffee table. And it needn’t be at all expensive.
The trick, I think, is to invite people you know from different corners of your life, so that most of the guests are largely new to each other; not so good, as I suggested, for a cocktail party, but perfect for a small sit-down event. [UPDATE: I forgot to note that such parties are also a good way to get to know people whom you’ve only met briefly, socially or professionally.] The other trick is not to be put off by the fear that your home is messy, your dishes are mismatched, your furniture is ugly, the living room will be crowded, and so on. If you give people something sweet to eat, something nice to drink, and interesting new people to talk to, they’ll be perfectly happy.
A good time to start, in my experience, has been about 8 pm or 8:30 pm, so that people have a chance to take care of their own dinners, though much depends on when your circle of friends likes to go to sleep. If only people arranged such things more often, the world would be a more interesting and pleasant place.